Previously working with Guillermo del Toro on his FX series The Strain, costume designer Luis Sequeira sought a balance between worlds of whimsy and Cold War fashion for the director’s latest original monster movie, The Shape of Water.
Following a budding romance between a South American fish-man and a mute janitor in ’60s Baltimore, del Toro’s fantasy required grounding in history to achieve a greater resonance, in line with the kinds of socially conscious fables for which the filmmaker is known. In preparation, Sequeira assembled libraries of inspirational imagery and fabrics from across North America, while creating boards for each character and environment, all in service of being “a brush in the painting.”
On The Shape of Water, Sequeira encountered Elisa, a character who looked to the movies for fashion inspiration, much as the costume designer does. Basing much of Elisa’s look on her place within society, Sequeira would capture the essence of the character, and the spirit of the film, with one particular detail: her stunning shoes.
After researching the Cold War period, what were the first practical steps you took in the creation of your costumes for The Shape of Water??
What I did is I started collecting fabrics that I wanted to possibly have as part of the movie, and we started to build this huge fabric library. I had gone to New York on a fabric and vintage shopping trip. We went to Philadelphia, to LA, Montreal, Toronto, and then some of the outskirts of Toronto, just to pick up vintage pieces. That’s really where the genesis of the look of the movie started. I started pulling from my wool section and my cotton section, and started laying down a palette of fabrics for each character.
The film’s lab workers often appear in muted colors—browns, greens, grays. Was this to suggest the oppressive nature of the work environment?
I think the overall feeling about the movie was that although it was set in ‘63 and it was oppressive, the whole world in the movie was very content being in this black-and-white, looking-back world.
We’ve got elements in the movie where we look towards the future—you see the jello color and the Strickland home being more modern—and the rest of the movie sits in this kind of black and white. Even though it’s not black and white, it sits in this Twilight Zone-like palette.
What was the process of collaboration between yourself and your below-the-line peers?
In the early stages, Guillermo worked with Paul [Austerberry, production designer] on pulling together a color palette for the movie, and I did the same thing in my department. Then, Paul and I came together and made notes, and came up with a harmonious color palette. I was always in contact with Paul with regards to the interior environments, making sure that the costumes were going to blend in, work in harmonious ways, and whenever it was needed, they could pull away in more of an obtuse way.
When Dan [Laustsen, cinematographer] came on board, we took a look at how we were going to shoot this, and there were conscious choices of intensity of color or intensity of darkness in relationship to how it was going to be shot.
What was the approach when it came to the film’s antagonists, Strickland and the Russian spies?
Strickland was impeccably tailored, with very precise measurements. With our Russians, there were more brown tones, and more wooly tones—a little bit of green, and an olive-y green. The Russians had their own color palette, except for the main Russian, who was the “head gangsta,” so to speak. He wore vibrant blues; that character and the salesman are the only people that wear that kind of very strong blue color.
So, there you have it. You have Strickland in his very gray, mundane suitings, and a little bit of the brown earth tones within the Russians.
How many copies did you have on hand, when it came to the costumes of your primary characters?
Depending on where the costume was being played, we always had at least three of everything, and a lot of the garments were actually built in-house. We had hat-makers out of Chicago, we had cobblers; I had three tailors, at one point, working on different characters. For the finale, I think we had upwards of 16 multiples. Strickland had an ongoing costume breakdown—it was an ongoing unraveling of his character—and we needed multiples for that.
What did his evolution look like, exactly?
When he first starts to lose it, he became disheveled. Then, he had the blood on this hand when he pulls off the finger, so from that, we had to create this timeline. We didn’t shoot it all at the same time, so sometimes we’d have to come back and go to a different stage of the blood work. Then also, when we went into the water, the whole raining sequence, all those garments of anybody that was in there had interliners within that helped to keep them dry in the pouring rain.
How would you describe Elisa’s wardrobe, and the visual arc she goes through in the film?
We wanted to have a distinct look for her, so I thought that we would do a kind of ‘50s look where she was not on the cutting edge of fashion. Since she spent an inordinate amount of time watching old movies, I thought that she would be a collector of pieces, almost like the girl that went to thrift shops, and the only thing that she really spent a lot of money on were shoes. She had a little bit of a shoe fetish.
We started with her in a color palette where she blended in, but she also had a distinct color in that blend that brought her forward. Then, later on, with the addition of the red, the colors that were blending away all of a sudden stood out as strength.
How did you arrive at Elisa’s look for the musical sequence?
In the movie, the character watches these old films and does the dance numbers, so we talked about this dream sequence as being something that would hark back to her visions of what she’d seen. We looked at old Ginger Roger movies, and one in particular, Top Hat, we were quite smitten by the look of it.
But I didn’t want to just copy the dress. It wasn’t like, “Oh, she’s having a dream, and now she’s in the Top Hat dress.” Dreams are never set in complete reality. There’s always a twist, something that is not set, so I designed the dress in half scale. We worked in a half-scale version to get the style lines and the actual look of the dress to a certain point, and then we were happy to move into a full scale. The main reason for that is, it’s an easy way to see a garment on a table and twist it around, and decide big-brush kind of detailing.
Also, the fabrication was so expensive. One of our fabrics was $450 a meter, so we had to be absolutely sure this was the dress we wanted. So we went through these various incarnations and half scale. Then we went to full scale, where we fit Sally [Hawkins]. She wore these mock-ups in her dance rehearsals to make sure that the dress was not too long, the dress was long enough, there was enough of the dress for the twirls, emulating those old ‘30s, ‘40s movies. Then finally, when we were all good, we made it in the real fabric.
The dress itself had four layers. We started out with a lace overlay, with a chiffon, then underneath, there were sequins that kind of emulated the creature’s lights. Then we put the crystals over top, so as she moved—like he moved—you would see this shimmering body.
What was the process in making sure the colors you were after translated correctly for the black-and-white sequence?
At the beginning, I had started this whole study on fabric and color and contrast and pattern, and what happens, and it’s quite an interesting thing—and the same with this, where I took photographs and did videos of the garment. We tried the chiffon below the sequin, we tried it above, we had all these various thicknesses. We didn’t want to be so opaque that we would lose the reflective quality, so we filmed that in color, and then we filmed that in black and white, just so we could see what we were going to get.
Do choices of fabric come down more to a film’s period or a particular character’s socioeconomic status?
There’s always a look towards socioeconomic level. But truly, it’s about finding the right fabric that is period correct, but services your needs. For me, it’s really about putting the collage of textiles together, where you’re mixing texture with sheen with pattern. That’s, for me, the artistry of it.
What were the biggest challenges presented by The Shape of Water?
We certainly were watching our pennies, so we had to be smart, and we had to make very concise decisions. I work really, really hard at my craft, regardless of what I’m doing, and the challenge was making sure that you were doing the best job that you could do. I wanted to make sure that my part towards the finished product was going to stand up to everyone else’s incredible talents. So it was more of an internal thing.